Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and the author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (Columbia University Press), now out in paperback.
As The New York Times recently noted, tensions between the Obama Administration and the nation's two teachers' unions have reached a crescendo this summer, with not a single administration education official speaking at either union convention. What's behind the apparently frosty relationship between the administration and one of the Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies?
One union staffer told me that teachers' unions feel like Obama's "Sister Soljah," referring to the hip hop artist whom Bill Clinton chastised in order to distance himself from Jesse Jackson in the 1992 presidential campaign. During the 2008 election, when asked by Fox News which Democratic constituencies Obama was willing to cross, he singled out teachers' unions.
In office, Obama's secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has clashed with teachers' unions on a number of issues, but the disagreements have crystallized over the important policy question of how to turn around the nation's worst performing schools. Duncan has emphasized two approaches: firing at least half the teachers in failing schools and bringing in privately run charter schools, the vast majority of which are non-unionized. In February, when the Central Falls, Rhode Island board fired the entire staff at Central Halls High School - a move decried by students who admired many of their dedicated teachers - President Obama personally intervened on the side of management. (He didn't explain why the PE and art teachers were to blame for low test scores in reading and math.) The school board itself eventually worked out a deal to reinstate teachers.